Latin America rising?

Westerners' talk of a Latin American 'revolution' replaces political analysis with pure fantasy.

Josie Appleton

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Topics Politics

‘A continent…is rising. By rising I mean the phenomenon of millions of people stirring once again…. This is not romantic; an epic is unfolding in Latin America…. Chavez and the rise of popular social movements, from Colombia down to Argentina, represent bloodless, radical change across the continent….’ (1)

In the New Statesman, John Pilger argues that Latin America is the stage for a popular, anti-imperialist and anti-market rebellion.

Naomi Klein also believes that a new popular moment has begun. ‘Across Latin America a…explosive multiplier effect is under way, with indigenous movements redrawing the continent’s political map, demanding not just “rights” but a reinvention of the state along deeply democratic lines.’ (2)

There is certainly something going on in Latin America, but these accounts are a long way from reality. Theirs is a picture-book view of events: the bad guy tries to impose a foreign market system on an innocent continent, but the people rise up and install their own genuinely popular system. This bears little relationship to events on the ground: it’s pure fantasy in the place of political analysis.

Venezuela’s firebrand president Hugo Chavez is figurehead of the new Latin American moment – the New Statesman cover pictured him in front of a photo of Che Guevara. Chavez calls America a ‘terrorist state’ and rails against US ‘imperialism’; he proposes instead ‘twenty-first century socialism’ and has built ties with Cuba and China. At the recent free trade talks, he helped to see off US president George W Bush’s plans for a Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). Instead, Chavez proposed his own Bolivarian Alternative for Latin America and the Caribbean (ALBA) – which he argued would redistribute wealth to the poorest, rather than siphoning it off to Washington fat cats.

Chavez is mainly sound and fury, though. He rants about America, and warns of US plans to assassinate him and invade Venezuela. Though the rhetoric gets louder and more grandiose, it’s pretty much business as usual between Venezuela and the USA. Venezuela supplies around 15 per cent of US gas; American companies haven’t been expropriated, but carry on making big bucks in Caracas; and they maintain ambassadors in each other’s countries.

It’s a sign of the times that political rhetoric occurs on a different plane to economic reality. Had one head of state fumed at another like this in the past, ties would have been broken. Now there is no Soviet Union as an alternative to the USA, Chavez’s options are narrowed – but on the other hand, he’s free to blow off steam. In general, America treats him with kid gloves. Bush didn’t respond to his goading at the free trade talks, and when an evangelical talkshow host called for Chavez’s assassination, the State Department criticised the comments as ‘inappropriate’.

Chavez’s internal record has some positive elements. He has vastly expanded spending on health and education programmes, bringing housing and services to Venezuela’s shanty towns. But this is mainly at the behest of high oil prices (the oil industry created nearly $20billion for the government this year, nearly $8billion up on last year) and huge borrowing from Venezuelan banks (the country’s internal debt has gone from $2billion to over $27billion over the past four years). Growth is good at the moment, but will be sent crashing should oil prices drop.

Western commentators often talk breezily about ‘radical democracy’ and ‘popular power’ in Latin America. Chavez may well be an energetic and experimental leader, but he hasn’t hatched a new model of social democracy that can be emulated by other Latin American countries – most of which lack Venezuela’s oil wealth. He has despatched the decrepit and corrupt old elite from institutions such as the courts and army, but has had problems institutionalising a new order, suffering splits within his own movement, with top allies accusing him of betraying the ideals of the movement.

Richard Gott, author of a book on Chavez, told MotherJones.com in an interview: ‘[Chavez] is keen on buzzwords like “participation”…but he hasn’t really fleshed out these ideas…. [He] is a very pragmatic leader who’s moving forward gradually on a number of fronts but doesn’t have any kind of blueprint for the eventual organisation of society in Venezuela.’ (3)

Latin America certainly is restive at the moment. Small wonder: this is a continent with a leftwing heritage that has suffered badly at the hands of free market reforms. In real terms, there has been very little economic growth since the 1980s, and virtually none over the past seven years. Countries such as Argentina have experienced a dramatic decline, losing large chunks of the middle class almost overnight. Latin American elites appear inept and incapable of doing anything to avert the situation. The experience of intractable poverty with no light on the horizon has pushed people on to the streets.

There is clearly a yearning for a more popular way of organising society and distributing wealth. But protests have largely been frustrated. From Ecuador to Bolivia to Argentina, protests have risen up and dispatched leader after leader. The result hasn’t been a new order, though, but a perpetuating crisis of the state and government. As the Bolivian coca leader Evo Morales commented ruefully: ‘We know how to bring down governments, but not how to take power.’ (4) Leaders who came in promising something different – such as Toledo in Peru or Lula in Brazil – have turned out to be disappointing.

Over the course of history the West has certainly developed at the expense of Latin America. Some Bolivians say that the Spanish took enough silver from their mountains to have built a bridge between Bolivia and Spain. But it’s not clear that free trade is all bad for Latin America, and nationalisation is all good. In many cases, Latin American countries are crying out for more free trade from the USA – Brazil wants it to remove import duty for Brazilian goods; Argentina and Brazil want the removal of US farm subsidies. Bolivia’s internal market can only use one per cent of gas reserves; it would be foolhardy to completely oppose export.

Clearly the market falls short as a mode of development, but nationalisation is no panacea. Nationalisation was tried: it often led to corrupt and inefficient enterprises, which were quick to cut wages in times of economic trouble. It wasn’t Bush that imposed the market on Latin America. Free market reforms were brought through in the 1980s in the context of high inflation and economies that were falling apart. Free market reforms were supported by the USA and international financial organisations, but they were authored by national elites. Bolivia, for example, suffered three years of hyperinflation between 1982-5, as a succession of statist governments tried to resolve the crisis; market reforms were eventually brought through in 1985 by Victor Paz Estenssoro, the grand old man of Bolivia’s populist 1952 revolution.

When it comes to writing about Latin America, there’s a mismatch between grand words and a messy reality. Western leftists look to Latin America as a canvas on which all their dreams can be painted. While the left is in dire straits back home, activists increasingly go looking for their revolution abroad. They wax lyrical about street protests and fiery leaders, paying little attention to the problems that these movements are facing on the ground. Western commentators would do better to face up to the problems of politics at home, than to fix a romantic gaze on Latin America.

(1) America’s new enemy, New Statesman, 14 November 2005

(2) The threat of hope in Latin America, Nation, 21 November 2005

(3) Hugo Chavez and His Bolivarian Revolution, Mother Jones, 4 October 2005

(4) Huayco en los Andes, Indymedia, 5 June 2005

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Topics Politics